Montana lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock vowed that infrastructure would be a top priority after a $150 million bill failed by a single vote before the 2015 Legislature adjourned, and it's going down to the wire again this session.
Lawmakers are planning to adjourn by the end of next week, and the window is closing to pass one of two bills to issue bonds to pay for tens of millions of dollars' worth of public works and building projects across Montana. They include road and bridge repair projects, water and wastewater system upgrades that rural communities can't afford to pay for themselves and construction projects at schools and colleges that have been needed for years.
The stalemate is in the House, as it was the last time lawmakers met two years ago. Representatives in the Republican majority are at odds with each other when it comes to going into debt to pay for infrastructure, with several of them vehemently against the idea.
Others are fine with bonding, but only if it goes toward "essential infrastructure" -- pipes and roads. To them, the building projects favored by Democrats, such as a $25 million renovation to Montana State University's Romney Hall, are pork projects that shouldn't be included in any bonding bill.
Compounding the problem is that the Republicans need the Democrats' help to reach the two-thirds majority -- 67 of 100 representatives -- needed to pass a bonding bill, and attempts to compromise have fallen short. As a result, the House is deadlocked after twice voting down a $78 million bonding bill that includes a mix of "essential infrastructure" and building projects.
The Senate passed a larger bonding bill with $98 million in projects after that bill's sponsor, Republican state Sen. Eric Moore, of Miles City, pointed it out that the disputed building projects are the state's responsibility alone. That measure is now parked in the House Appropriations Committee.
Committee Chairwoman Nancy Ballance said Wednesday that she won't advance that bill when the House can't pass the smaller bonding measure.
"It's just sitting there until you have some confidence that 67 people can decide what they want," Ballance said.
Ballance said she believes Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock should step in to help build consensus. Bullock spokeswoman Ronja Abel responded that the governor's door is open and he's willing to work with both parties, but "the ball is in the Republican-majority Legislature's court."
On Wednesday, Democratic lawmakers gathered a group of people who would be affected by the disputed building projects -- including a Montana State University student and veterans advocating for $10 million to build a veterans' home in Butte -- in a news conference to add pressure to the Republican caucus.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, of Butte, said he remains optimistic but it is looking more likely that this session will be a repeat of 2015, when the bonding bill failed at the end of the session.
"As each day passes, those odds get greater that it is going to end the same," Sesso said. "I just don't think as a whole this 65th Legislature, which is an entity in and of itself that came together to do good things, is going to let that happen."
House Republicans point out that they have passed other bills that pay for more than $200 million in public works projects in cash. Sesso responded that isn't good enough, and many needed projects will be left behind for at least another two years without the bonding bill.